Patriots

Can the Patriots manage not to turn Sunday’s performance into empty promises?

A 1-3 start shouldn’t give many teams a sense of hope. That’s not the case in New England, where such a trait has cashed dividends in the past. 

Mac Jones looks to pass in the first quarter against the Buccaneers. Jim Davis/The Boston Globe

You could argue the New England Patriots are only a couple of inches and a firmer grip from being regarded as one of the best teams in the NFL this season. 

Take away Damien Harris’ ill-timed fumble in Week One against the Dolphins and add an ever-so-slight puff to aid Nick Folk’s field goal attempt against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and we’re probably talking about this team making a playoff run. 

Instead, the 1-3 Patriots are at a sort of crossroads. Maybe they’ll be better than the 7-9 campaign of a year ago. Maybe the 2021 stretch run will be better characterized by how high of a draft pick they end up getting. Or, maybe, Sunday night’s competitive loss to the Buccaneers will be seen as an early coming-of-age game, the sort of loss that helps defines a team’s pieces and strengths moving forward. 

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If the loss in Brady Bowl should serve as any sort of moral victory, it’s that Mac Jones seems like the real deal at quarterback, a position that countless other teams have continually tried and failed to fill successfully. It’s that Bill Belichick proved that he can still run defensive circles against the best offenses in the game, whether or not his ingrained familiarity with the personnel played any part. It’s that of the $159.6 million of guaranteed money that Bob Kraft handed out over the offseason, at least Matthew Judon looks like he was worth the price of admission. 

And yet, the Patriots are tied with the Jets and Dolphins in the basement of the AFC East. 

At 1-3, New England is grouped in with a host of other teams that were presumed to be going nowhere long before the season started; the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, and Houston Texans are all one-win teams that have, perhaps, already exceeded expectations. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-3, but with the very real conclusion that Ben Roethlisberger’s career is sputtering to its end. The Vikings, Colts, and Eagles are all 1-3, but nobody really earmarked any sort of Super Bowl run for any of them beforehand anyway. 

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It’s not like there was that prognosis for the Patriots either. But still, after spending a record amount in free agency, the returns should have been better than a 1-3 start. 

We’re a little less than a quarter of the way through this season and the Patriots are on pace for four wins. Of AFC teams, only the Chargers, Broncos, Browns, and Bills have allowed fewer points than the 70 that New England’s defense has thus far surrendered. Only the Jets, Dolphins, and Steelers have scored fewer than the 71 offensive points the New England offense has managed. Belichick’s fingerprints are all over this team, helping to mold it into a unit that finds success in the fundamentals of the game, the very same fundamentals that his team keeps gagging on in crucial moments. 

Thus, the inefficiencies we’ve seen through four games  make it impossible to predict what comes next when it comes to hope and expectation the rest of the way. 

If 10-7 is good enough to earn one of the AFC wild cards, then the Patriots will need to go 9-4 over their remaining schedule of games. Impossible based on the team we saw against the New Orleans Saints. Not so crazy and out of the realm of possibility for the one we watched Sunday night. 

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Let’s afford one of the losses to the Buffalo Bills, likely to run away with the division. That leaves three more to divvy up among the Dallas Cowboys, San Diego (I know) Chargers, and Cleveland Browns. Mix in a win somewhere among that group and add another loss against a team the Patriots should beat (Titans, Falcons, or Panthers), and you can start to see the pieces falling into place. The Patriots might be able to rebound from a 1-3 start. Besides, the last time they were 1-3 happened to be the year Brady took the reins from Drew Bledsoe and helped lead the franchise to its first Super Bowl victory. 

Lest we get too ahead of ourselves, Sunday’s loss was the sort of watershed moment that turns those high hopes into something worth at least discussing. For if a loss to the Bucs during the first weekend of October is to be classified as a moral victory, it’s impossible to understand the importance until the results have been turned in. Yeah, it looks great two days later. How will a moral victory’s importance stand with a loss to the Houston Texans this weekend? 

It was in Week 10 of the 2001 season when the 5-4 Patriots lost, 24-17, to the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams. The team wouldn’t lose another game until the following September in San Diego, a stretch that included a Super Bowl victory over those same Rams. Now, that was a moral victory worth talking about. 

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If these Patriots go on any sort of run based on their successes — and failures — from Sunday night, then we’ll start to see some positive characteristics forming, giving us a better sense of what this team is made of. Right now, they’re among the dregs of the league. But we’ve watched this film before. 

A 1-3 start shouldn’t give many teams a sense of hope. That’s not the case in New England, where such a trait has cashed dividends in the past. 

Twenty years later, there’s a lot of similarity with the team that laid the foundation for the dynasty. Just like in 2001, there’s an early hole to climb out of. 

The Patriots haven’t played well enough to be 3-1, yet they are only two split-seconds of fortune from being one of the better teams in the league. Which probably means there are more than a few 3-1 teams (Bengals, Broncos, Panthers) who might not be as good as their records suggest. 

One and three isn’t a death knell. One and four, losing to the Texans, arguably the worst in the league, and there’s no hope. 

Sunday showed promise. But without a follow-up, it’s nothing but an empty showing. 

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